Emil Carlsen was born in Copenhagen on October 19, 1853. He studied architecture at the Danish Royal Academy between 1868 and 1872. He emigrated to America in 1872, settled in Chicago, and found work as an assistant to a local architect. For a time he also worked for a fellow Dane, the painter Lauritis Bernhard Holst (1848-1934). When Holst returned to Denmark in 1874, he turned his studio over to Carlsen, who had by this time decided to become a full-time painter. Upon the recommendation of the Chicago sculptor Leonard Wells Volk (1828-1895), Carlsen was appointed the first instructor at the newly formed school of the Art Institute.
In 1875 Carlsen returned briefly to Denmark and then went to Paris, where he stayed for six months. While there, he carefully studied the works of the eighteenth-century painter Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). Returning to New York in 1875, the artist set up his own studio, but he had to supplement his meager income from painting by working as an engraver and designer. In 1879 financial difficulties forced him to hold an auction of thirty of his works, but the proceeds did not even cover the sale's expenses.
In the early 1880s Carlsen began to develop a reputation as a still-life painter. Commissioned by a dealer to paint saleable flower pieces, he returned to Paris in 1884, where he remained for two years, painting numerous brightly-colored pictures. Eventually, he grew tired of this repetitious work and broke the contract he had made with the dealer. Carlsen went back to New York and opened a studio on West 57th Street. He worked there until 1887, when he began a two-year tenure as director of the San Francisco Art Association's school. He resigned this post in 1889 but remained in San Francisco until 1891.
Carlsen again settled in New York in 1891 and began teaching at the National Academy of Design, where he would continue as an instructor until 1918. He was married in 1896 and numbered among his friends in New York William Merritt Chase, J. Alden Weir, and Childe Hassam. During the first three decades of the twentieth century his works were included in numerous exhibitions and he won many prizes. In 1911 he began an association with the New York dealer William Macbeth, and was given one-man shows at Macbeth's gallery in 1912, 1919, 1921 and 1923. Carlsen died in New York on January 2, 1932. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Price, F. Newlin. "Emil Carlsen-Painter, Teacher." International Studio 75 (July 1902): 300-308.
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Bye, Arthur Edwin. Pots and Pans, or Studies in Still-Life Painting. Princeton, 1921: 213-220.
Steele, John. "The Lyricism of Emil Carlsen." International Studio 88 (October 1927): 53-60.
The Art of Emil Carlsen, 1853-1932. Exh. cat. Wortsman Rowe Galleries, San Francisco, 1975.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 45.